Consumer electronics in Cuba
Byte by byte
Mar 19th 2008 | HAVANA
The inalienable right to a toaster—but not quite yet
WHEN Raúl Castro took over the presidency of Cuba from his ailing brother, Fidel, last month his acceptance speech to the National Assembly included a teasing hint. “Within weeks”, he promised, some of the restrictions that circumscribe Cubans' daily lives would be lifted. That set off a public guessing game. Would an unpopular dual-currency system be modified and the local Cuban peso, in which wages are paid, be revalued? Long queues formed at exchange houses as Cubans rushed to swap “convertible” pesos for their lowlier counterpart. Others hoped for a lifting of curbs on foreign travel, or at least for permission for Cubans to stay in tourist hotels in their own country.
But Mr Castro's plans have so far been more modest. According to an official memo, the government is to lift a ban on the purchase of computers, DVD players and microwaves. Next year, air conditioners should be available. Cubans can also look forward to the right to buy an electric toaster by 2010. Days later news broke that private farmers will be allowed to buy their own supplies, rather than these being assigned by the state.
The government is able to widen access to consumer electronics because Venezuelan aid has allowed it to overhaul the electricity grid. Officials also know that the grid will not immediately be overwhelmed: monthly wages average $17. For those who don't receive remittances from relatives abroad, electronic gadgets will remain unaffordable. Even for those who do they will be expensive: they will only be available in state-owned shops that apply a mark-up of around 200%.
Nevertheless, lifting the ban on buying computers came as a surprise. Officials have long regarded the internet with suspicion. The government has set up a Cuban intranet, which is all that is available in schools and universities. Internet accounts are available only to foreigners, or to favoured Cubans for research purposes. Officials blame this on a lack of bandwidth. They have a point: the United States government has blocked plans for a fibre-optic link to an undersea cable in American waters (so Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is now building a similar link to his country).
But the official mood might be changing. “I think the leadership now recognises that when it comes to the internet the genie is out of the bottle, and they have to live with it,” says a foreign diplomat in Havana. Cubans have become remarkably inventive at getting online. Doctors and academics with internet access rent their passwords so that others can use them after office hours. Some entrepreneurs have smuggled in satellite receivers to connect to the internet; they then sell accounts to their neighbours.
The digital age has opened the odd crack in the state's information monopoly. At a meeting in January Ricardo Alarcón, the assembly president, struggled to explain to computer-science students why Cubans should be banned from travelling abroad. A video of the meeting was promptly posted on YouTube.
Another small sign that Raúl Castro is probably prepared to tolerate
more debate than his brother did is the survival of Generación Y,
a blog written in Havana by Yoani Sánchez, a young Cuban woman who
posts her entries from tourist hotels or from one of Havana's few internet
cafés. In a post this week she predicted that at the current rate
of progress, by 2050 Cubans might be allowed satellite television.